Newspapers are meant to record history. Occasionally though, they make history. The Sunday Times did that long before it neared the milestone of its 25th year of publication. That was a drama in its own right: a tragedy, a comedy and a farce complete with a Shakespearean twist, quite literally. That was when the editor of the Sunday Times Sinha Ratnatunga was charged, convicted and then discharged of criminally defaming former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
The offending article was published in a ‘gossip column’ on February 19, 1995. The ‘plot’ revolved around a 134-word snippet in the column. It claimed that Kumaratunga attended a birthday party hosted by a relative who was a Government MP at a city hotel ‘in the heat of the silent night’. It said she was ‘circumspect’ and used the rear entrance of the hotel and had ‘epicurean’ tastes. She was “watched by a phalanx of security guards and myself”, the columnist wrote.
The details mentioned in the snippet, it transpired, were entirely false. Kumaratunga was never at the party. While accepting this, the Sunday Times refused to divulge its sources or the author of the article and denied intent to defame.
After a 30-month trial, judgment was set for the 1st of July, 1997. The stage for the drama was Court No. 1 of the Colombo High Court in Hulftsdorp. Despite the high ceilings and the noisy whirring of ancient fans installed during British rule, the air was hot and humid: a typically sultry morning in Colombo, made worse by jostling crowds in the cramped courtroom. Among them was Anura Bandaranaike, present to see his estranged sister prosecuting an old friend. The heir of Horagolla was sweating profusely and wiping his brow constantly. There were many other parliamentarians too but all eyes were on High Court Judge Upali de Zoysa Gunawardena.
At first, the script went according to plan. Gunawardena, who later revealed himself to be an admirer of Shakespeare, had, according to the Editor-in-Chief of the respected Indian newspaper, The Statesman who had come to cover the cause celebre, that ‘lean and hungry look’. Judge Gunawardena swiftly convicted the editor of criminal defamation.